Marash Kumbulla begins his third season in the Italian capital, and despite feeling like he’s a grizzled veteran, the towering Albanian is still 22-years-old. It’s his second season in our U23 countdown (he arrived from Verona too late to be part of our 2020 countdown), and he moves up one spot to number four in this season’s countdown.
This season could be make or break for him in Mourinho’s Roma, so let’s take a look at Roma’s big money center back.
Number Four: Marash Kumbulla
Position: Center Back
Shades Of: Giorgio Chiellini
Who Is He?
After a breakout season at Hellas Verona under the tutelage of Ivan Juric as a 19-year-old during the 2019-2020 season, Kumbulla moved to the Italian capital for the hefty sum of €29.50 million. Kumbulla had mixed results during his maiden season in Giallorossi colors under Paulo Fonseca, missing 14 matches through injury and illness. Many expected Kumbulla to improve under the vigilant eye of José Mourinho, but the 2021-2022 season was a tale of two halves for Big Max.
Kumbulla didn’t get off to the best start under Mourinho, cast out as one of the eleven pariahs after the 6-1 beatdown at Bodø/Glimt in late October. He didn’t make his first league start until November and started just four times before the calendar turned to 2022. Nevertheless, unlike most of the starting eleven from that fateful night in Norway, who were shipped out or saw significantly reduced playing time, Kumbulla saw his stock rise in the second half of the campaign.
Praised for his work ethic and good attitude, Kumbulla worked his way back into Mourinho’s good graces. During the second half of the season, the Albanian started nine league matches, and four knockout round matches in Roma’s march to the Conference League crown. In the end, what could have been a disastrous campaign actually began to trend in the right direction, with a total of approximately 1,800 minutes played in all competitions.
What Can He Do?
Considering this is Kumbulla’s third season in the capital and fourth as a Serie A regular, his game is pretty well known. So, we’ll revisit a scouting report written about him before his move to Roma and was included in last season’s countdown:
Kumbulla is a large, physically strong defender who stands at 6’4” (1.92m) and is comfortable playing in multiple systems. Scouted Football thoroughly analyzed Kumbulla’s game in February 2020 prior to his move to Roma. You can read the entire piece here. In the meantime, here are some of the highlights.
The Albanian already has the classic frame of a long-serving Serie A defender. Akin to a battle-hardened veteran like Giorgio Chiellini, Kumbulla has the stature, broad shoulders and uncompromising ferocity to overpower and overwhelm attackers. In an increasingly rare trait for modern defenders, Kumbulla looks as comfortable digging in and fending off a bombardment for ten minutes as he does strolling out of the backline.
Far from simply dominating attackers on the ground, Kumbulla is a versatile defender who can repel attacks no matter how they arrive.
What turns Kumbulla from “merely” an excellent penalty-box defender into a potentially elite contributor in Europe is his growing comfort in possession. Passing has statistically been the weak point for Kumbulla this season, but there’s enough promise there to envision a future where the defender can confidently kickstart attacks for elite clubs.
He’s rarely satisfied with a lateral pass and is instead constantly swiveling, searching for a gap to exploit.
Who Can He Become?
That scouting report from his breakout season at Hellas Verona sums it up perfectly. Kumbulla has a high ceiling, drawing comparisons to Giorgio Chiellini in his physical stature and his comfort on both sides of the ball. That’s not to say that Kumbulla will ever be at Chiellini’s level, who was a once-in-a-generation center back.
Despite his potential as a leader of a high-quality backline, Kumbulla's name swirled around the transfer market this summer, particularly in connection to his former manager Juric, who now leads Torino. Even with the links to Il Toro, it looks like he will remain in the capital again this season, making this a make-or-break season for Kumbulla.
Center backs generally develop later than other outfield players, so it was surprising to see Kumbulla look so seasoned during his spell at Verona. While he doesn’t have to explode this season, he will need to show improvements to win Mourinho's trust and become a viable part of the center-back rotation.
To ensure an upward trajectory and take the next step in his development, a strong start will be crucial for Kumbulla. With the inconsistent Roger Ibanez on Chris Smalling's left and the often booked Gianluca Mancini on his right, Kumbulla will have the opportunity to steal some minutes from those two if he can re-find his Verona composure both on the ball and in defense. Otherwise, this could be his last in the capital.